Missional Misgivings Misgivings

Posted: December 5, 2008 in church, emerging church, ministry, Missional Church

Some of you may have read Dan Kimball’s “Missional Misgivings” article over at Out of Ur. If not, let me get you up to speed. Kimball argues that missional advocates — at least one he was on a panel with — believe that the mega-churches (sometime called “attractional”) are dying and that younger people in the city are not interested, that missional advocates criticize attractional churches for not seriously engaging discipleship, and that missional churches have an unproven track record. In the end, Kimball suggest that the pressing matters of evangelism in the local church are what motivates him “missionally.” 

First, let me say, that I like Dan Kimball and his book, “The Emerging Church” made a lot of sense for me at a crucial time. Unfortunately, many folks have misused Kimball’s work, brought in candles and sofas to their worship gatherings, called it emerging and complained that it didn’t work. That was a misuse of his work, and he deserves better. That being said, I had some great misgivings about his “Missional Misgivings”.

My first misgiving, is that Kimball, as many others have done, is bilateral in his understanding. Like the critics he critiques, Kimball, falls into the trap of seeing missional and attractional as opposed to one another. What Christian would argue that Jesus is not attractive? This, from my read, is not what people mean when they use the term “attractional.” It is not a question of missional vs. attractional, but rather a question of direction. At the end of the day, is more of your energy and resources used to bring people in or send people out. In a healthy churches both are happening. And to speak to their leaders of those churches as if attracting and sending were opposed to one another would be foreign concept. Therefore, Kimball’s argument — and that of the missional leader he is responding to — is fundamentally flawed.

Second, Kimball places more import on numbers than I, quite frankly, think is appropriate. Don’t get me wrong, evangelism is crucially important, conversions are important. Essential. But Kimball’s review too easily dismisses two communities — a self-described missional church of 35 and a small house church — because they did not “multiply” or “plant”. I understand the complaint, but is Kimball suggesting that a house church that feeds the homeless somehow represents the Kingdom of God less than the mega-church down the street who is “converting” people? Here’s where reading the gospels can be helpful.  Kimball is equating conversion with the totality of kingdom work. However, I kind of remember Jesus saying something to the Pharisees about going to extreme measures to convert people  to a version of religion that didn’t reflect God’s people-priority, would make them twice the children of hell…or something like that. A better way to say this may be this: If you’re converting people to a religion that’s not dealing with the homeless, that may not be a God-focused religion.

There’s more to representing the kingdom than the head count in the pew. Perhaps, crazy as it may sound, the path is actually narrow. It’s easy to make caricatures here, but does Kimball want to say that a church that converts a lot of people but doesn’t do as much for the homeless is more of what God intends? My point is simply this: Different communities represent the Kingdom in different ways, they have different strengths.

Scriptures call is a big one, don’t we have room for all of us to offer our gifts without saying, “Your priorities aren’t my priorities, so I’ll dismiss you?” Kimball says he’s not a numbers person, yet that’s all his article is concerned with. He says missional churches don’t have a proven “track record” with “measurables.”

Third, a natural by-product of Kimball’s numbers focus, is that he misrepresents what missional ecclesiology is about. I don’t want to get into the nuances of missional church here, but there’s much more to missional than growing your church, and there’s more to it than “social justice” or “outreach” too. Sadly, this is how Kimball understands “going missional” (along with too  many others). Rather than go into all that, I would point you and Kimball here to listen to Patrick Keifert describe what we mean by missional. Hint: It’s more than soup for the poor.

Fourth, Kimball ends his assault with these words, “I hope there are examples of fruitful (read: numbers) missional churches that I haven’t encountered yet. I hope my perception based on my interaction with the missional movement is wrong. But for now, I would rather be part of a Christ-centered megachurch full of programs where people are coming to know Jesus as Savior, than part of a church of any size where they are not.” My question for Kimball is this: Who wouldn’t?

We all want to be a part of a church where people are coming to know Jesus. Kimball’s statement is like saying, “I want to be in a marriage where the husband and wife love one another.” That statement has nothing at all to do with the merits of either mega-churches or missional churches. Are there people in both who aren’t concerned with the full witness of the gospel? Yes. Are there people coming to know Jesus? Yes. Kimball here falls prey to a classic misunderstanding of the gospel, that “conversion” is simply a transaction that merely changes one’s status before God (Read Mark Love on the challenges of  Penal Substitutionary Atonement as the primary image of salvation). The assumption is that once someone has made an orthodox confession of faith (plus whatever other rituals their community practices) then they now “know Jesus.” Unless I’m unique, my experience is that most of us trust Jesus and spend the rest of our lives getting to “know” Him. 

I understand what Kimball is saying, “You say you’re missional, but are you reaching people?” and it’s a good challenge to what I call the “coffee-house theologians” who take pride in their smallness and perceived purity. But his negative assertions are misplaced, and likely a reaction to some “holier-than-thou” personalities he’s encountered. He confesses that his perception is based on his interactions with people. Perhaps, Dan should extend his missional education into other avenues.  I would encourage Kimball and others to investigate missional ecclesiology beyond  snippets on the web, what so-and-so said and published interviews with people who know very little about the subject. As with everything, we need to seek out learned scholars and best practitioners before we pronounce the death or inefficiency of something. So here are some good places to get started.

Allelon — For Missional Leader

Gospel and Our Culture Network

Church Innovations

** Note: Please see Dan Kimball’s response to this post in the comments section!

  1. Dan says:

    Hey Sean,

    If you haven’t you can see what I posted in the comments on Out Of Ur. The article was edited down and the title about “small church” was not the title I had written. So it ended up feeling focused in a direction that it wasn’t meant to be. If you look on


    I also made some comments there.

    With what I am reading in your response, when you are talking about feeding the homeless – that is not what I was asking my questions about. To my understanding, most churches today and missional churches especially are involved in social action and loving people like that through tangible forms of help.

    My specific questions and why numbers were rasied was because I have had some consistant conversations with missional leaders who criticize larger churches saying they don’t make disciples. So from that, I then began asking what new disciples are made in their churches? And I started realizing that almost all that I asked were not seeing those who weren’t Christians before become Christians as a result of years as missional churches. But they were criticizing larger churches. So that is why I brought numbers into it, was because of what I was hearing from some missional leaders.

    It seems asking if there are people who did not know Jesus before and now do is a valid question. Jesus did say to “go make disciples” and “go fish for people” and the entire book of Acts is filled with stories of people who heard about the good news of Jesus, repented and made a decision to believe and follow Him when they weren’t beforehand. That is what I am asking because I was hearing criticism about larger churches from those in missional circles who say they weren’t doing that, but then when I asked the very ones who were criticizing the larger churches what they were seeing in their churches, it wasn’t happening either. If you go to the blog post link above you will see how I tried to flesh out when numbers are talked about to see it more as a health exam but a doctor doesn’t just look at weight. You need to check all types of things. You can be skinny but have terrible blood pressure etc. and not healthy. So size is not the one factor to be looking at with anything organic. But they still do weigh people and measure things when you go to a health exam.

    Anyway, my original post was asking, if this is accurate or not in what I was observing and hearing from people and as I started the article with I said “I hope I am wrong”. So I was asking for examples too, since I have had only limited observations but started to see patterns.

    So you know too, I am very familiar with the origins of “missional” and etymology and how it is defined. .

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts!

    Peace in Jesus,


  2. Sean says:


    Interestingly, as your comment was coming through, I was reading what you posted in the comments section under your initial article. I think Ur may have done you a disservice by editing down some crucial portions of your article.

    It seems to me that there is a great deal of criticism going around and criticism often produces defensiveness. I can see how some small church leaders, who consider themselves “missional” might want to exercise their legitimacy by taking pot shoots at “mega-churches.” It may feel good. I grew up in the American Restoration Movement, we have NO mega-churches, but have frequently taken great pride in being the “right-doing,” right-thinking” remnant. I know where it comes from, but it is not helpful.

    So, when the mega-churches begin to feel criticized they say, “Well, how many people are you reaching?” That’s a good, fair question, but is often not asked honestly. Behind asking the question is the trump card! Score Board! Take that!

    The truth is that every church should be doing both. I was highlighting that some people, leaders and traditions may be better at some expressions rather than others. That’s why a concentration on One Church, One Faith, One Baptism is important. What would it look like for a Willow Creek or North Pointe to celebrate the small church of 50 serving the city in hands-on ways? And what would it look like for a coffee-house gathering to celebrate every confession made at Vintage? I think that’s a truer reflection of the church.

    I’m not very big on us vs. them.

    After having read the complete article, I’m much more in line with what you’re suggesting. These are important questions to raise, and I thank you for raising them.

    Thanks for finding my little corner of the web, Dan. Thanks for writing and making us think.

  3. Dan says:

    Thanks Sean! And you may or may not know – I am not in a megachurch mysef, but a church plant that was planted in 2004.

    Thank you for your blog and ministry,


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